Administrative Law


From Fighting City Hall to Licensing Board Hearings

Administrative Law refers to the many areas of law that are governed by municipal, state or federal agencies. State and federal agencies are departments of government that are typically organized under the executive branch of government. They are usually thought of as “regulatory” in nature and are the frontline in most areas of governance. A complete listing of the federal and state agencies that Mainers might find themselves dealing with would require no less than 50 pages, but some of the better known include:

  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
  • Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS)
  • Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
  • Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA)
  • Social Security Administration (SSA)
  • Department of Labor (DOL)
  • Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)
  • Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)
  • Maine Revenue Service (MRS)
  • Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS)
  • Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife (IFW)
  • Department of Labor (DOL)
  • Department of Professional & Financial Regulation (PFR)

City and Municipal Agencies

City and municipal agencies vary from town to town, but can include a Zoning Board, a Tax Abatement Board, Planning Board, as well as various committees such as Land Use, Budget, Cable TV, Parks and Recreations, Economic Development, Environmental Resources, Recycling, School Boards, and many more specific to each municipality’s needs.

Increase in Areas of Public Interest and Concerns

Throughout the 1900s, state legislatures and the U.S. Congress increasingly created governmental agencies to administer the law. As society became more complicated by population growth, urbanization, industrialization, and the rapid expansion of interstate commerce, people turned to government to do something to regulate the ill effects of these major changes. Agencies were created by the legislative branches to address specific societal concerns.

These agencies were authorized by legislative branches to promulgate rules, which furthered the broad goals of the more general laws that they proscribed in creating each agency. As a very basic and wholly incomplete example, in 1970 the EPA was created by Congress to “Establish and Enforce Environmental Standards.” The EPA, like other administrative agencies, carries out its legislative charge by creating laws called regulations. It is responsible for enforcing those regulations and the laws of Congress which “Establish and Enforce Environmental Standards.”

Although governmental agencies are most commonly organized under the executive branch of government, many scholars have noted that agencies contain elements of all branches of government. Like legislatures, they create laws by issuing regulations. Like the judiciary branch, they adjudicate people’s rights under the laws they administer. Like the executive branch, they enforce the laws through their ability to deprive people governmentally derived benefits and entitlements, such as possessing a license to trade stocks, to practice medicine, or to sell insurance products.

Legal Entanglement with Governmental Agencies and Representation

While it is common to hear people speak cynically of bureaucracy, governmental agencies are actually a very important component of America’s legal culture. In fact, in many ways, agencies are the frontline in America’s system of law. With the exception of criminal violations, if you are ever involved in any dispute with the state or federal government, it will almost certainly be through an administrative agency. Some of the more common examples of disputes with Maine administrative agencies, for example, include:

  • Disputes with the Department of Labor over unemployment benefits;
  • Disputes with the Public Utilities Commission over utility bills or services;
  • Disputes with the Maine Revenue Service over tax issues;
  • Professional licensing complaints or other issues relating to regulation of professional or financial services through the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation; and
  • Dependence on the Maine Department of Environmental Protection when water quality is compromised.

One of the essential aspects of Administrative Law is that governmental agencies are given very broad discretion to interpret and administer the laws that they oversee. Because of this, a final decision of an administrative agency is extremely difficult to appeal successfully. Therefore, if you are involved in a dispute with any state or federal agency, you should make every effort to hire a lawyer to help you.

Basic Legal Principles Applicable to Administrative Law

The cornerstone of Administrative Law is the Due Process requirement in both the U.S. and Maine constitutions. There have been thousands of court cases interpreting the phrase, “due process,” but at its most basic, due process is the proposition that the government cannot deprive anyone of any right or entitlement under the law without a process that allows for citizen notification, comment, and counter-argument before implementation. This has been interpreted by the courts as requiring an impartial and fair hearing and proper notice of the hearing. Agencies are generally given significant latitude in prescribing the processes and procedures that it utilizes to adjudicate the rights of the parties involved.

Why Should I Hire a Lawyer?

Because the final determination of a state or federal agency is so difficult to overturn on appeal, it is very important to do everything possible to win your case at the administrative level. A lawyer, especially one who is familiar with the agency involved in your dispute, will understand the procedures and regulations specifically applicable to your dispute. Every agency has its own procedures and rules that apply to the adjudicatory proceedings that it administers. While the procedures applied to hearings are published in the relevant statutes and agency regulations, the manner in which they are applied and interpreted by the agency is often not easily discernible. Many attorneys specialize in practicing in one particular state or federal agency and have established professional relationships with hearing officers and other employees of the agency. These specialized lawyers are most familiar with the internal processes of the particular agency. If you lose your case at the agency level, and have to rely on an appeal to a court of law, the agency’s interpretation of the laws applied to your case will be entitled to “deference.” Generally, on appeal, you will have to show that the agency’s final conclusion was “clearly erroneous” or “unsupported by the substantial evidence of record.” These are very high standards to meet in a court of law.

Generally, you will not be able to submit additional evidence on appeal, and the appeal will be limited to the evidence offered at the administrative hearing. This is another reason to hire a lawyer during the administrative process of your dispute. One thing that lawyers do is well is gather information to build the administrative record. Whether it is medical records or conducting a deposition of an expert witness, a lawyer will be able to gather the evidence that is necessary to address the weaknesses of your case and to bolster its strengths. Failure to present this evidence at the administrative hearing will most likely bar you from introducing it later.

Many citizens who attempt to represent themselves in disputes with administrative agencies do not fully understand the implications of losing at the administrative level. They explain that they will hire a lawyer if they lose and have to take it to court. This is a dangerous line of reasoning, because a lawyer often has his or her hands tied in an appeal, and cannot make arguments that were not raised and preserved for appeal at the hearing level.

Related Legal Terms

Due Process a broad legal term of art the meaning of which depends on the context that it is used in. In the context of administrative law, due process refers to the constitutionally-guaranteed right that a person shall not be deprived of any right, entitlement, or benefit under the law, without notice of the potential deprivation and an opportunity to be heard. While what constitutes due process depends on the right, entitlement or benefit being threatened, it most often includes an impartial hearing or an opportunity to present evidence and argument in support of your rights. In administrative law, due process also refers to the procedures applied by agencies when they create regulations. As a broad proposition, a regulation cannot become law under the principles of due process, without public notice of the proposed law, and a public hearing on its merits and demerits.

Regulations laws written and adopted by an agency. Generally speaking, a regulation cannot become law without public notice and hearing on the proposed regulation pursuant to either the state or federal Administrative Procedures Act. Furthermore, an agency may not make laws that are not related to the agency’s purpose, as it was intended by the legislative branch that created it. For example, the EPA cannot create a regulation making it illegal for children to play outside on Sundays, unless they can show that it relates to the environment.

Bureaucracydescribes the offices and employees of the many various state and federal agencies that are responsible for administering elements of the law. A Bureaucrat is one who is employed by or with any state or federal agency and more typically is used to refer to a supervisor within such an agency.

Administrative Recordthe sum of all evidence and documents utilized by the agency throughout its administrative process of adjudication. An appeal from a final agency action is often limited to the evidence constituting the administrative record. Under Maine Procedure, the administrative record is typically filed by the agency in response to a Notice of Appeal and the appellant has an opportunity to object to any portion of the administrative record or to ask the appellate court to include anything that was left out. A lawyer is typically very adept at developing the administrative record to the greatest extent possible.

Clearly Erroneous the legal phrase used to describe the “standard of review” in an appeal to a court of law from a final agency action. The clearly erroneous standard is a very high standard of review and the appellant must show that the agencies conclusions of law were clearly erroneous. This means different things to different judges, but typically is a difficult burden to carry.

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This is for general information only. It is not intended as legal advice.